Dorothy Day (1897-1980)

By J.S. Porter

“We have all known the long loneliness and we have learned that the only solution is love and that love comes with community” – Dorothy Day

She knew something about love.

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“Love means answering the mail that comes in—and there is a fearful amount of it. That person is in hospital, that person suffering a breakdown of nerves, the person lonely, far-off, watching for the mailman each day. It means loving attention to those around us, the youngest and the oldest (the drunk and the sober).”

She admired the Russian writers, especially Dostoevsky who gave her words to live by: “Love in action is often a harsh and dreadful thing compared to love in dreams.”

She knew something about dedication and perseverance. A priest in Jim Forest’s pictorial biography, All is Grace: A Biography of Dorothy Day, remarks: “…year after year living an austere life in the grimmest of conditions, being jailed again and again, never giving up doing the works of mercy, never getting cynical, never letting her love of god and people dissolve. Anyone can be saintly for a week or two, or even a year, but to persevere from youth through old age, to remain on the cross until death—that is a mark of true holiness.”

She lived by the code of Ecclesiastes: “Do what comes to hand. Whatsoever thy hand finds to do, do it with all thy might.” She found service to others at hand and she did it mightily.

She admired Saint Thérèse of Lisieux, with her emphasis on “the little way.” You make a difference in the world by paying attention to details.  Does the stranger have a bed to lie on, clothes to wear, food to eat and a job? Does he or she feel wanted, needed, loved?

As a young woman, her face was beautiful. As an old woman, her face was beautiful. And in the in-between years, her eyes were bright and determined.  She knew who she was and where she was going.

In her youth, she smoked, drank, swore, prayed, read, wrote and worked for the poor and the needy.  She had literary friends, including Malcolm Cowley and Eugene O’Neill.  My kind of woman, my kind of saint.  Later in life, she prayed, protested, went to jail, read, wrote, raised a daughter, read to grandchildren and great-grandchildren, spoke out against injustice, internalized the Gospels, and worked for the poor and the needy. My kind of woman, my kind of saint.

Kate Hennessy, author of Dorothy Day: The World Will Be Saved by Beauty: An Intimate Portrait of My Grandmother, wrote in The Catholic Worker 17 years after her grandmother’s death: “To have known Dorothy means spending the rest of your life wondering what hit you. On the one hand, she has given so many of us a home, physically and spiritually; on the other, she has shaken our very foundations.”

I think she is beginning to shake mine. I’m beginning to wonder what hit me. I’ve read very little of her and know of her as someone Thomas Merton wrote to, and sometimes for, as in his “The Root of War is Fear” article for The Catholic Worker. In reading Jim Forest, I learn other things: she established 160 houses of hospitality throughout the US and elsewhere; and was responsible for the printing of 94,000 copies of The Catholic Worker by 1976.

She makes me rethink my thoughts. “Women,” she says, “think with their whole bodies.” Child-bearing imposes “a rule of life which involves others.” Men needn’t be so anchored.

There is no sentimentality in Dorothy Day. She sees clear-headedly. She reprimands her correspondent-friend Thomas Merton for his idealist regard for the Beats and those who follow them: “they are a fly-by-night crew who despised and ignored the poor around us…I am uncharitable about the intellectual who shoulders his way in to eat before the men on the line who have done the hard work of the world…”

The FBI had a file on her for, among other things, her stand against the Vietnam War: “I accuse the government itself, and all of us, of these mass murders in Vietnam, this destruction of villages, this wiping out of peoples, the kidnapping, torture, rape and killings that have been disclosed to us…Reparation is needed. We must do penance for what we have done to our brothers.”

When Pope Francis delivered his address to Congress in 2015 he referenced four Americans: Abraham Lincoln, Dr. Marin Luther King, Jr., Thomas Merton and Dorothy Day.

Pope Francis acknowledged Day’s fight for social justice and the rights of persons, which meant freedom from poverty, unemployment and oppression:  “In these times when social concerns are so important, I cannot fail to mention the Servant of God Dorothy Day, who founded the Catholic Worker Movement. Her social activism, her passion for justice and for the cause of the oppressed, was inspired by the Gospel, her faith, and the example of the saints.”

*All quotations are taken from Jim Forest’s All is Grace: A Biography of Dorothy Day. Toronto: Novalis, 2011. [Orbis Books in the US].  My article first appeared in the Summer Issue 2018 of Dialogue Magazine.

Jim Forest, a friend of Merton’s and a former member of the Catholic Workers Movement, kindly passed on my thoughts on Day to Day scholar Rosalie G. Riegle, who generously responded, “One of the best short pieces on Dorothy I’ve read.”

Craig Larson also posted my thoughts on his website found here: There’s Someone You Need to Meet – Dorothy Day (1897-1980) – J.S. Porter.  Craig is co-director with his spouse Carol of a Catholic Worker farm in Swan River, Manitoba, growing apples, hay and haskap berries and giving to food banks and those in need.